History of roads: Lancaster Avenue, Conestoga Road, Paxton Road, the High Street Ferry

Before starting today’s column this writer has leafed through the series of scrap books in which she has kept the clippings of “Your Town and My Town” since the first column appeared in the March 11, 1949, issue of “The Suburban.”

So many subjects have been touched upon in the course of these four years, that there seems but one connecting link – local interest – and there is one subject to which she returns at more or less regular intervals. That is the old Lancaster Turnpike, and its evolution from the days when it was a narrow Indian trail through the wilderness down to the present, when it has become part of one of the great automobile highways of America.

More than any one factor, Lancaster Pike seems to make Wayne and all Radnor township part of a great land that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For “our Pike” is now, indeed, the Eastern link of the great transcontinental Lincoln Highway (U.S. route 30) that stretches from ocean to ocean.

Like most of the early dirt roads, especially in the 13 origlnal states, both the Lancaster highway and the Old Conestoga road followed the route of the old Indian trails through the wilderness. Such trails, worn as they were by soft moccasins, were originally usually only 12 to 18 inches wide. How long these particular trails had served the Indians no one knows. But it was in the closing years of the 17th and the early years of the 18th century that they were first traversed by white men, mostly of hardy farming stock, who had come from strife torn countries overseas at the invitation of William Penn. Over these trails they pushed their way westward into the wilderness that the Indians had named “Conestoga”, meaning “Great Magic Land”.

Although some of these early settlers came to trade with the Indians, the majority came to establish homes and farms in this new land. With a rugged heritage from their forebears they were able to cope with the hardships of a new and uncultivated country in order to establish farms for themselves and their families. Many of these pioneers were Germans who settled in Lancaster County. Others were equally hardy Swedish settlers.

For a time the narrow Indian trails were all the roadways that were required by these first white farmers in Pennsylvania. But as their farms flourished, transportation became an increasingly important factor. Most farmers had one or more horses of their own to carry produce to market, and some had enough teams to specialize in transport work. Soon the Conestoga wagon evolved from the first crude vehicle. And then came the development of a special breed of farm horse, known also as the Conestoga horse. Both wagons and horses were so large and so sturdy that soon after the beginning of the 18th century they doomed the old Indian trails and the pack horses.

The first two highways from Philadelphia to Lancaster County completely by-passed the town of Lancaster itself. These were the Conestoga road and the Paxton road, which were the highways between Lancaster County and the Delaware River until 1733. In that year the Governor and the Provincial Council recognized a petition by the Conestoga farmers for a King’s Highway”. Acting on this petition, the Province ordered that a dirt road 30 feet wide be laid from the courthouse in Center Square, Lancaster, “until it fell in with the highroad in the county of Chester” and so through to the High street Ferry on the Schuylklll. This road was opened in 1741.

Transportation across the Schuylkill was by ferry only until 1805. In January of that year a bridge built of wood, on stone piers, was opened to the public. This structure, which was 1300 feet long and cost $300,000, was the first covered bridge in America. In 1875 it burned and was replaced by a temporary substitute, which in turn gave way to a more permanent one in 1881.

In the meantime, improvements in the road that led from the river toward Lancaster had been keeping pace with the changes in the methods of crossing the Schuylkill. As the country developed and as travel increased, it became evident that a better road was needed. And so, in 1792 the legislature authorized a company to construct a turnpike from Philadelphia to Lancaster, the first road of its kind in the country.

It is said that popular enthusiasm ran so high that the stock offered was heavily oversubscribed, and it became necessary to choose the stockholders by lot from among the many applicants. Begun in 1792, the Lancaster Turnpike was completed in 1794 at a cost of $465,000. Extending the 62 miles between Philadelphia and Lancaster, it was the first stone highway in the country and subsequently became the pattern for those that were to follow it.

The Conestoga wagons that had formerly become mired in the mud of the old highway now found the going along the new highway much easier by comparison.

Picturesque was the scene on the old turnpike in the late 1700’s and the early 1800’s, when the Conestoga wagon, with its broad wheels, rolled along its leisurely way, pulled by its six horse team. And then there was the dray coach swinging upon its leather springs, and the stage wagon and the mail coach, as well as the farm wagon. Interspersed with these vehicles were the large droves of cattle being driven from their inland pastures to the seaboard – and at regular intervals along the stone turnpike were the many old inns of which we have written frequently.

(To be continued)

Sorrell Horse Tavern, George Washington & Lafayette, Unicorn Inn

A Radnor township inn that is still remembered by some of the older residents of this section is the Sorrel Horse Tavern, which once stood on the left-hand side of Conestoga road, just to the east of Sproul road. Built some years earlier, it was first licensed about 1756, and was stilL in operation as the only tavern in the township in 1884, when it was owned and run by heirs of Philip Kirk. When it was torn down some years later, George H. McFadden built his handsome home near the site of the old inn, incorporatlng in its building some of the material from the inn. By calling his place “Sorrel Horse Lodge”, he has even retained the old name in his residence.

Back in the early days of the Sorrel Horse Inn, Conestoga road and the Lancaster turnpike were identical in this section, near Ithan. George Sachse in his book, “Wayside Inns on the Lancaster Highway”, lists the Sorrel Horse as the 14th stop for travelers after crossing the Market Street bridge over the Schuylkill on their journey westward. ln John Faris’ “Old Roads out of Philadelphia”, the latter writes:

“Several miles farther along the old Lancaster road, near the corner of Ithan road, is another inn of the early days, where Washington stopped more than once. This is Sorrel Horse, now occupied as a residence by George H. McFadden. On a bridge over a small stream east of the house is a tablet bearing this message:

‘During the encampment at Valley Forge in the darkest days of the Revolution, the nearby stone dwelling, then the Sorrel Horse Inn, with warm and patriotic welcome sheltered often as its guests Washington and Lafayette.’ ”

Later on in the same chapter, Mr. Faris quotes from a letter written from the Sorrel Horse in 1787, of the roads in this section. This letter says, “In all the times and, seasons I have traveled this road I never found it so bad as at present. From Jesse George’s Hill to this place I could not once get into a trot, but could not compare it to anything but being chin deep in Hasty pudding and obliged to trudge thru it. The Hills, it’s true, are not so slushy but are worn into lopsided ruts so as to be scarcely passable.”

This condition was very much remedied for the traveler, however, only a few years later, when the Lancaster Highway became the first stone turnpike in the country in the mlddle 1790’s.

The next stop to the westwardfor travelers in the early days was orlginally called the ”Signe of the Plow.” Later names were the “Plow and the Harrow” and the “John Wilkes.” Henry Graham Ashmead’s “History of Pennsylvania” tells of many unsuccessful attempts to obtain a license for this tavern, beginning with Michael Atkinson’s in 1732. The latter stated that he “hath rented the house of David Evans, of Radnor, where Evans kept a public house for several years.”

After Atkinson’s petition was refused, one Morgan Hugh, in August, 1734, initiated another petition on which there were 39 signatures, among them those of Frances and Anthony Wayne. He too was refused the first time, but returned later on in the same year with another petition on whlch there were 55 signatures, and “the justice at last yielded to his im- portunity.”

Landlords of this tavem followed each other in quick succession, among them David Evans himself, who stated in his petition that he “liveth at a small place formerly called the Signe of the Plow, which hath been a Publick howse many years”; that he “has wife and children” and wants to sell “Beer and Sider.”

By 1782, one Paul Shannadon informed the court that the title of the old hostelry was then the “John Wilkes”, but formerly it was known as the “Plow and the Harrow.” In 1786 Mary Ring “received license for the ancient stand, after which it no longer appears as a tavern.” For some years this old inn, located only about a mile from the “Sorrel Horse”. must indeed have been much sought after.

The Spread Eagle Inn, which stood just to the west of the present Spread Eagle building, has been described at length in this column about three years ago. Listed by Sachse as the 17th tavern along the turnpike, it is described by him as a few rods above the fourteenth milestone…”

This was a stage stand of the first order and renowned for its cleanliness and good cheer. It was a post tavern and relay station kept for many years by the Slter family. It lay just between the famous old Lamb Tavern described in last week’s column and the almost equally well known “Unicorn Tavern.” It stood just a short distance below the fourteenth milestone “where both the old road and the turnpike cover the same ground”, according to Mr. Sachse.

In discussing their proximity the same author contrasts the two by saying, “At the beginning of the Revolutionary period Spread Eagle was known as the gathering place of the patriots of the vicinity, while Miles’ old tavern, a short distance below, which had been re-christened ‘The Unicorn’ and kept by a local Irishman, was patronized by the citizens who were either Tories or Loyalists.” So strong was the feeling between these two elements that it even expressed itself in fist fights, according to some of the tales of those times.

This old Unicorn Inn, which once stood right in the confines of Wayne, was built by one James Miles, who in 1747 presented his petition that “he has lately built a house on Conestoga (Lancaster) road… and desires that he may have license for a public-house there.”

Some 20 odd years later, after there had been a succession of proprietors for this Inn, Samuel Johnson obtained a license for the ”Unicorn, that ancient and noted tavern.” By 1805, the name had been changed to “The Farmers Inn.” Still later, in 1818, it was designated as the “Commodore Decatur Inn.” A year later its time honored name, “The Unicorn,” was restored, only to be superseded by still another one, the “Black Bear”!

In the 1700’s and 1800’s the Unicorn was as much a part of our community as the famous old Spread Eagle itself. It remained in operation until 1872 when, on St. Valentine’s night, according to the old records, this famous hostelry was completely destroyed by fire. In the heyday of the life of these three well-known taverns, the Unicorn, the Spread Eagle and the Lamb, the yards of all three, in spite of their close proximlty, were filled to their utmost capacity with wagons, stages and teams.

(to be continued)

Toast to the Tavern, inn histories by James Dallett

Following the January 9 issue of this column in which the quaint old “Toast to the Tavern” of a bygone era was quoted, your columnist received a letter from James Dallett, of Wayne, in which he gave some further information in regard to several of the old inns mentioned in the toast. Mr. Dallett, a member of a family which has made its home in and around Wayne since the 1870’s, is much interested in local history in all its aspects. He writes:

“There were many inns in the Radnor tract in Colonial days. The first petition for a license in Radnor which appears on record is dated May 28, 1717, and was presented by Edward Thomas, who informed the court of Chester County that his house was located ‘near ye church called St. David’s Church’ and that he was, because of proximity, ‘obliged to entertain many people come to worship at ye said church’. He was granted a license to sell ‘Beer, Sider, etc.’

Mr. Thomas’ house is, Mr. Dallet believes, “the property presently occupied by Frank C. Strohkarck on Valley Forge road just above the churchyard of Old St. David’s Church.”

This was probably not an inn in the true sense of the word. At least it does not seem to have had an official name. But there are several others that did a thriving business in this vicinity, which Mr. Dallett does designate by name. Among them are the “Sign of the Plow”, subsequently known as the “Plow and the Harrow”, and later as the “John Wilkes”; the “Unicorn”, later the “Farmers Inn”, and later still the “Decatur Inn” in honor of the national hero of that time, after which it went back to its original and best known name, “The Unicorn”. Others in this general neighborhood were the “Sorrel Horse Tavern” and the “Lamb Tavern”.

All of these inns are listed and described by Julius Sachse in his book, “Wayside Inns on the Lancaster Highway”, published in the late 1800’s. Mr. Sachse identifies the location of each one in relation to its proximity to the old milestones. Thus the Lamb Tavern “first inn on the turnpike in Chester County”, stood a short distance east of the 15th milestone, while the Spread Eagle, which was right on the border line of Chester County, stood “a few rods above the 14th milestone on the turnpike.”

In this connection It is interesting to note that the 13th milestone still stands at Wayne’s busiest intersection at the northwest corner of Wayne avenue and Lancaster highway, directly in front of the entrance to the Cobb and Lawless store. It is now protected by a strong iron grill erected by the Wayne Iron Works some years ago. This small white stone with its brief inscription, “13 m. to P”, has stood on this spot since shortly after 1796, the year in which the Philadelphia and Lancaster turnpike, the first stone highway in the United States, was completed.

Mr. Sachse’s book contains copies of the old “distance tables” published prior to the building of the turnpike. In these the starting point of measurement was from the courthouse, then located at Second and Market streets in Philadelphia. However, when the present milestones were put in place, the distance noted in them was from the Schuylkill River. “Consequently the location of the old landmarks appears to be two miles less than on the older distance tables.”

The route of the present Lancaster Highway differs slightly in places from that of the original first stone highway. This is shown by the location of the old Lamb Tavern, since in its modernized form it stands on the corner of Old Conestoga road and Valley Forge road in Devon. It is evident from this that at one time both Old Conestoga road and the turnpike were identical in certain sections. The beautiful old white stone residence, which stands close to the road at the present corner of Valley Forge and Old Conestoga roads, is described by Mr. Dallett as follows:

“The Lamb tavern mentioned in the old toast of the roads still stands in altered form at the corner of Conestoga and Valley Forge roads in Devon, and is now known as “Roughwood”. It was built in the middle of the 18th century and its situation on the edge of Valley Forge road (also known as Baptist road) made it a point of refreshment for farmers from near Valley Forge on their way to the Lancaster turnpike and thence to Philadelphia.

“This was the road which started at the fortification called Star Redoubt, west of the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge and moved southwestward towards Berwyn. The original line of the old road has disappeared, but in Washington’s time it crossed the parade ground, passed to the east of General Varruni’s headquarters, and at a curve at the farm of Senator Knox (now the Tindle property) southeast towards the Valley Baptist Church and continued on to what is now Devon. There is a tradition that there was a colonial burial ground near this road, in which graves of soldiers who died at Valley Forge so augmented earlier graves that one might walk hundreds of feet using the graves as stepping stones.

“After turning southwestward at the Knox-Tindle property, the road struck out in direct course past the Valley Baptist Church. Although diversions from the old line now exist, Franklin L. Burns, of Berwyn, a local archaeologist, has reported that it passed Valley Baptist Church, went straight up the hill towards Devon, skirted the northern edge of the G. G. Browning estate, the Cathcart Home, and the Charles Lea estate, until it crossed Conestoga road. Here it continued transversely over the present ‘Roughwood’ property, the old Lamb tavern standing immediately adjacent to the road, and crossed Old Lancaster pike in a straight line. Certain large ash trees standing in a row in the middle of the lanes at ‘Roughwood’ still mark the former course of the old road. The present course of the road necessitates a sharp turn to the left on Old Lancaster pike, which it follows 200 feet before turning southward again.

“During the Revolutionary War, American troops quartered at Valley Forge stopped at the Lamb
tavern, and Washington himself is said to have tarried at the bar for an hour or so! It was within the American picket lines. The Lamb later became a farmhouse and so remained until early in the 1870’s, when it was bought by Michael Dallett (1845-1902), a member of the firm of Dallett and Company, which operated the ‘Red D Line’ in Philadelphia and New York. This had been founded in the 1830’s by Michael’s father, John Dallett, and his uncle, Henry Carpenter Dallett, as the first regular clipper ship line running between Philadelphia and Venezuelan ports in the coffee trade.

“Michael had married, in 1869, Mark Kirkbride Peterson, daughter of Israel Peterson, mayor of Philadelphia. He bought the old Lamb as a summer place for his young bride, while other members of the Dallett family summered at Wayne. Michael Dallett named the house ‘Roughwood’ and beautified the 16 acres of ground. Mrs. Dallett was a niece of Joseph John Gurney, the English Quaker banker, and to ‘Roughwood’ came many prominent Engllsh and Venezuelan visitors as well as American ones.

“In 1890 the Dallett family modernized the old stone house into a more or less Georgian type mansion, retaining the marvelous old hand-carved stairway and interesting fireplaces. After this they spent more and more time at the ‘summer’ place in Devon. It later became the permanent home of Michael Dallett’s daughter, Frances, who became Mrs. Stephen Fuguet, and remained in the possesion of the Fuguet family until a few years ago. It is one of the showplace residences of this area today.”

(The late Frank Dallett, who lived for many years on Windermere avenue and Michael Dallett were double first cousins.)

(To be continued)

Old Eagle School Road, school house, “Chicken Lizzie”

As your columnist walked up the hill along Old Eagle School road from Strafford station in the damp chill of an afternoon last week and turned onto the lane that leads past the old Eagle School, the opening sentences of an item written some years ago by Martha Wentworth Suffren, came into her mind. This article, which appeared in the Evening “Bulletin” began:

” ‘Still sits the school house by, a ragged beggar sunning’. Not ‘ragged’ any longer. The trustees see to that. They keep the grass cut, remove a tree if one falls. But – no prayer of faith wafts upward to the blue, no childish feet scamper or scuffle through the deep doorway, even as once from Sunday School. Houses have Sprung up thickly around the old building, and children there are in plenty.’ ”

This “quaint, almost forgotten relic of early Colonial days, with tightly shuttered windows and tightly bolted door,” as Mrs. Suffren further describes it, seems now a spot quite apart from anything save its immediate surroundings, which are its neatly kept grounds, and the adjacent graveyard “where the great trees spring as often from the graves themselves as from the ground between.” Even to the present passerby along this quiet lane, the noise of the heavy traffic on Old Eagle School road seems almost unreal and far away, as the mind’s eye envisions the ox-drawn carts of those early German immigrants who in the middle of the 18th century founded a small colony in Tredyffrin township.

It was they who built the first small log structure which was to serve both as church and school, and which was to be the heart of their living in this new land. It is a pleasant thought that the spot on which this first little log structure was built, in about 1767, should be marked by a restoration of the second structure, which was built of stone in 1788, as indicated by the stone set in the present southern gable.

Your columnist paused for a moment of quiet reverence before the old church and school building before making her way to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Duncan I. Selfridge, who live a little further along and across the lane from the school house. Mrs. Selfridge is the former Miss Eleanor Newhall, daughter of Daniel S. Newhall, one of five men appointed by the Court as trustees of old Eagle School, just before its restoration in the late 1800’s.

Mrs. Selfridge is custodian of the keys to the building and supervises its care and that of the grounds surrounding it. She is also one of the present seven trustees appointed by the court, the other six being Dr. Thomas A. Shallow, Leonard T. Beale, L. M. C. Smith, all of Philadelphia, in addition to General Milton G. Baker, of Wayne, Daniel A. Newhall, of Narberth and Albert T. Colgan, of Strafford.

Mrs. Selfridge’s recollections of the old school house go back to the days of her early childhood when the tumbledown structure was occupied by “Chicken Lizzie” and her feathered companions, described in last week’s column. At that time Eleanor Newhall lived with her family in the big rambling white
house at the intersection of Crestline and Old Eagle School roads. This house is now occupied by Mr. Colgan, one of the present trustees, and his family. Mrs. Suffren recalls many visits to “Chicken Lizzie”, a pleasant and harmless old soul who let small Eleanor gather eggs from the hens’ nests. At that time, the surrounding countryside was sparsely settled, with only a few of the present houses in existence.

As your columnist left the pleasant warmth of the Selfridge home to go out into a short-lived snow flurry, Mrs. Selfridge gave her the key to the old school building that she might have a long-anticipated look at the interior. But a door tightly jammed by recent dampness made this impossible, although Mrs. Selfridge says that the caretaker often has it open for an airing on pleasant days.

After her unsuccessful attempt to open the door of the schoolhouse, your columnist wandered over to the old graveyard back of the schoolhouse. The light fall of powdery snow had softened the outlines of old tombstones, now covered with growth of all kinds. So dense is this growth that any progress through the graveyard is almost impossible.

However, Mr. Pleasants’ book has recorded much of interest in regard to it. The first trustees made “an exhaustive investigation of the old traditions regarding the burial in the little cemetery of many soldiers of the American Revolution… they established beyond reasonable doubt that many soldiers who died during the Valley Forge encampment of the American Army, in 1777-1778, were buried here, having been removed from the camp to the farmhouses and other places, which then served as hospitals, and then, on their death, to this as the nearest public burial ground.”

The names of these soldiers seem irretrievably lost. However, those of five who served during the Revolution and were later buried here, were well established, including Jacob Huzzard, Samuel McMinn, Charles McClean, Frank Fisher, all of Tredyffrin township and William Lindsay, of Upper Merion township.

The trustees placed a large boulder on the western slope of the graveyard, on which were inscribed the names of these five men, as well as a bronze tablet “in grateful remembrance of the common debt due these humble patriots.” The services of the dedication were held on July 4, 1905.

Mr. Pleasants’ book also contains an alphabetical list of other interments in both marked and unmarked graves dating from 1769 to 1895. These are several hundred in number, and include those of persons of various ages and from many walks of life.
“By time-worn graves behold the ancient school!
It stands beside the spot where earlier years
Beheld a meeting-house of rough-hewn logs,
Which sheltered long the German pioneers.
They went to join in voice of praise and prayer
And joy in freedom thus to worship God.
It thus hath stood a hundred years and more,
A church and school, with resting place for Dead…”

From “Lessons from the Lowly” in appendix of “Old Eagle School” by Henry Pleasants.